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Ship Cafe, Venice
Ship Cafe, Venice
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

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Inside the Wild World of L.A.'s Early Theme Restaurants

These spectacular places once ruled the city's restaurant scene.

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The lavishly restored Clifton's Cafeteria downtown features a neon sign that reads "Living History." On the surface, it's an odd phrase to describe a the restaurant's massive artificial trees and woodland simulacra, but that lavish fakery is an important piece of Southern California's restaurant past. Theme restaurants were popular elsewhere in the world even before the turn of the century — for instance, a jail restaurant built in the bohemian neighborhoods of Paris. But the wide-open, undeveloped Los Angeles landscapes, coupled with movie magic, provided the ideal setting for these fantastical eateries to flourish.

Even before the woodsy Brookdale Cafeteria opened in 1932, theme restaurants were an essential piece of Los Angeles's dining culture. The city is famous for dining establishments shaped like tamales, hotdogs, airplanes, and doughnuts. Some theme restaurants enriched the experience with garishly costumed waiters and entertainment, though they seldom attempted to link the fare with their outlandish facades. The theme restaurant was purely about set dressing.

The Pink Rat Cafe offered gothic castle decor, waiters dressed like pirates and shimmy dancing

"There were a lot of out-of-work set designers," food historian Charles Perry explained at a recent Culinary Historians of Southern California event. Perry often gives talks about L.A. oddities like the Pink Rat Cafe on Seventh and Alvarado in Westlake, advertised as a "taste of old Paree," which offered gothic castle decor, waiters dressed like pirates and shimmy dancing. The shimmy dancing sadly only lasted three weeks, since illegal alcohol was fueling all that shimmying.

Diners of the 1920s weren't ready for anything too exotic on the menu, not even the "Polynesian" cuisine that would later be served at lavishly decorated tiki temples like the late Bahooka and Luau. Perry points out that since most of the early transplants to LA came from the Midwest, the typical menu at these restaurants served basic steaks, chops, and chicken, no matter how outlandish the décor.

A shipshape seaside restaurant

Back in 1905, Venice was the place to party; alcohol flowed freer there than in other neighborhood. That year, one of LA's first themed restaurants opened: Baron Long's Ship Café, nicknamed Cabrillo's. A massive vessel, which didn't actually float on the water, was built next to the now long-gone Venice Pier. The pier-side restaurant was vaguely modeled on the Spanish galleon that explorer Juan Cabrillo used to sail to California.

Ship Cafe Venice

[Ship Cafe, Venice. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection]

By 1920, at the start of Prohibition, 100,000 people had passed through ship for their last sips of legal booze. The menu featured halibut, sand dabs, barracuda, and lobster along with braised ox joists, foie gras, California oysters, mussels, and cockles. The ship included hotel rooms and private salons, the better to order up hooch during Prohibition from waiters dressed like 16th century naval officers.

"Los Angeles was a big place for theme restaurants because of the theatrical nature of Hollywood," says Chris Nichols, City Scholar for Los Angeles Magazine. "They would show up in newsreels. They fit into the party atmosphere and the Jazz Age."

Ship Café owner Baron Long, "was a big deal," points out Nichols. "He was also one of the developers of Agua Caliente in Tijuana and the Biltmore Hotel [in Downtown LA]. The Ship Cafe was one of the few theme restaurants that was also programmatic architecture (an entire building in the shape of the theme)." Even after a fire, Cabrillo's continued on for more than two decades until it was finally torn down in 1946.

Jails, stables, and Pirates

The prison theme proved as popular in LA as it was in Paris when the Jail Café opened a location on 6th St. and one in Silver Lake. El Cid on Sunset Blvd may look like a Spanish citadel now, but it started life in 1925 with a guard standing watch from a tower atop the restaurant, with waiters dressed as convicts and tables inside prison cells. Apparently pretending to be a prisoner was a festive event, because dancing was encouraged. Steak, chicken and lobster were on the menu; to keep with the them, customers ate with their hands.

Jail Cafe
[Jail Cafe at 4212 Sunset Blvd. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection]

Sometimes the theme got a little too authentic: A 1926 Variety article described a real-life hold-up at the Jail Café that netted the robbers $500: "When two bandits walked in and ordered everybody to throw their hands up, folks though it was part of the evening's entertainment. However, they changed their minds when one of the bandits started going through their clothes and taking anything that looked valuable."

In addition to making light of prison, in the 1920s motoring out to the Valley for fried chicken at the racist Zulu Hut was all the rage. The owner was actor Raymond McKee, who called himself the Zulu Chief, and required his African-American servers, as well as white waiters in blackface, to throw knives, "jabber in French" and perform "native" dances for the patrons.

The restaurant had a dirt floor and thatched roof, the obvious setting for a squab and cornbread dinner. (The Zulu Hut was located approximately where the Fox ‘n Hounds Pub is today). A Variety article noted that roadhouse owner McKee was among many film people who had investments in the restaurant business. Not surprisingly for a wood hut covered in dried palm fronds, it burned down in 1931.

Sometimes the theme was more food-focused. Beef was celebrated at downtown L.A.'s Ye Bull-Pen Inn, which lured customers with a huge bull out front proclaiming it was "famous for steaks." The diners ate in stable-like stalls while taxidermied steer heads gazed down from walls etched with forest scenes.

A 1927 menu from the 533 S. Grand Ave. location featured charcoal broiled New York cut steaks and baked potatoes, with vaudeville acts on the side. The hyper-masculine restaurant's motto was "A café unique." After several locations downtown, Ye Bull-Pen moved to 8204 Beverly Blvd. in 1932, where steak dinners could be had for $1.00.

Many of these themed restaurants had some association with Hollywood, and the starriest of all was the Pirate's Den. Owned by superstars Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, actor Fred MacMurray and "Tarzan" actor Johnny Weismuller, the nightspot got its start in Greenwich Village before proprietor Don Dickerman opened a Hollywood location in the 1940s.

Located on La Brea near Beverly where the Bob Hope Health Center stands now, the joint's opening band was a swinging combo called Schnickelfritz. Waiters dressed as pirates, while their manager carried a bullwhip to enforce discipline in the crew. Dickerson was obsessed with swashbucklers and collected paraphernalia that he used to decorate all the locations of the successful mini-chain.

"Rita Hayworth and Judy Canova were guests of Alex d'Arcy at the Tuesday meeting of the Rumbamania Club at the Pirate's Den," read a gossip column entry of the time. The cocktail menu promised "the six most mystifying drinks in history," including the Kava-Kava, the Dizzy Death and the Skipper's Orchid, "a seductive nectar of the tropics for mermaids." Mock battles were staged while female patrons were abducted and held in the brig until they screamed, at which point they were released with a "scream diploma," according to the book "Out With the Stars." Perhaps it's just as well that the Pirate's Den walked the plank by 1945.

Pirate's Den

[Don Dickerman's Pirate's Den. Photo courtesy of]

Los Angeles in the 1920s, 30s and even 40s was still the Wild West in many ways, when the main preoccupation was where to get a drink, especially during Prohibition. At times, those restaurants reflected harmful cultural stereotypes as surely as the Hollywood films of the era. But there was also a charm to a dining world of fantasy when just about any night, you could end up eating in a jail cell, a ship, or a cattle stall.

Pat Saperstein is a senior editor at Variety and writes the local restaurant blog Eating L.A.

Editor: Meghan McCarron

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